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Stainless sculptures and monuments

Over the ages, sculptors have sought materials that can withstand the elements and last for generations. The use of stainless steel in New York City’s 1930s buildings inspires sculptors even today. Isamu Noguchi convinced the Associated Press to approve the use of stainless steel instead of bronze for his famous sculpture News – an Art Deco plaque depicting five journalists ‘getting a scoop.’ It has been installed above the entrance of 50 Rockefeller Plaza since 1940. This famous 9.1-ton relief, 6.7 m (22 ft.) high by 5.2 m (17 ft.) wide, was the world’s first large cast stainless steel sculpture.

News Sculpture, Photo credit Catherine Houska, TMR Consulting

However, the Type 302 (equivalent to today’s 304) stainless steel must be regularly cleaned and clear-coated to protect it, because it would stain otherwise. More corrosion-resistant stainless steels were not available at the time.  The introduction of deicing salt has made the coastal city even more corrosive to materials.  Unfortunately, coating failure between applications detracts from the appearance as can be seen in the image. Therefore, Type 316/316L or the even more corrosion-resistant 2205 duplex stainless steel have been used for more recent New York area buildings, sculptures and monuments. Examples include the New Jersey “The Empty Sky”, US national (New York) and Pentagon 9/11 Memorials.  These more resistant alloys protect against corrosion and minimize maintenance requirements.

Jean Sibelius Monument, Photo credit Catherine Houska, TMR Consulting

One of Helsinki’s most important landmarks, the Jean Sibelius monument designed by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen, honors the composer and violinist. Unveiled in 1967, its 600 hand-textured silvery tubes of various diameters reflect the changing seasons and resonate with the wind, echoing bird song. Since this is a coastal city, Type 316 stainless steel was selected and it has performed beautifully. The tubes are up to 8.5 m [28 ft.] in length and the sculpture weighs 24 tonnes. A smaller version of the sculpture can be found at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris.

As coloring methods for stainless steel became available, they were initially used for elaborate murals in Japan. However, in 1992, Frank Gehry realized the potential for large sculptures. He created a gold electrochemically colored Type 316 stainless steel fish sculpture (56 m [184 ft.]) long and 35 m [115 ft.] wide) for Barcelona that seems to want to jump into the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Photo Credit Nicole Kinsman

Stainless steel’s history of exceptional long-term performance and low maintenance has made it a preferred material for sculptures. Some recent examples include:

  • Dublin’s Monument of Light (2003, coastal location) – a 121.2 m [398-ft.] Type 316L stainless steel spire;
  • Chicago’s bean-shaped Type 316L Cloud Gate (2004, deicing salt)
  • London’s 52 cast Type 316 pillars for the 7 July 2005 Bombings Memorial (2009)
  • Washington’s U.S. Air Force Memorial (2006, deicing salt) with three curving Type 316L spires up to 82 m [270 ft.] in height;
  • Mongolia’s stainless steel-wrapped 40-m [131-ft.] tall sculpture of Genghis Khan on horseback (2008);
  • Brisbane, Australia’s 23 m [75.5-ft.] Venus Rising sculpture (2012, coastal), both Type 316 and 2205 duplex stainless steel, and
  • Scotland’s Kelpies sculpture (2013, coastal), Type 316L, 30 m high horse heads

These and other more recent stainless steel designs capture the world’s imagination and will be appreciated for generations because of appropriate stainless steel selection.

Stainless steel has also played an important role in the restoration of famous sculptures and monuments in functions ranging from hidden stone anchors and structural sections to more visible applications. The most famous examples are probably New York City’s Statue of Liberty and, in Brussels, the replacement of the Atomium’s deteriorating aluminum panels with Type 316 stainless steel.